DAWN - Editorial; 16 May, 2004

May 16, 2004

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Neighbourhood pointers

Comparisons with India are considered by many here as irksome and unrealistic and by some even odious or unpatriotic. But the intense electoral exercise that our next-door neighbour, facing many of the same problems as us, has just gone through holds several lessons for us. First and foremost of course is that this was India's 14th general election since independence; we had no national poll until 1970, and since then have had eight elections.

Even this number does not represent democratic progression because of the abrupt dismissal of governments and assemblies, and also because some electoral exercises were tainted by rigging. As in previous elections in India, this time too there were incidents all over the country of booth capturing, intimidation, violence and polling irregularities.

Yet the overall outcome of a general election has never been in dispute, and has been accepted with grace by the losers. This time, Mr Vajpayee had conceded defeat even before the tally was complete. The transition from one government to another has generally been smooth. All this is in marked contrast to what we have undergone in the few fitful years of political activity that we have been allowed.

We cannot hold even a handful of by-elections without bloodletting and fierce controversy, as Karachi's example proves. Even Bangladesh might soon begin to rival us in terms of continuity and endurance of the political and democratic process. Is a comparison with Bangladesh, which was once a part of us, also injudicious?

There are other interesting pointers from across the border. The BJP concentrated on the growth and enrichment of the urban elite and middle class, on the benefits of information technology and private enterprise. It lost. Parties that targeted the deprivation of the countryside and concentrated on socio-economic issues of daily life and pressing local concerns for the masses won.

The Congress is not a socialist party, and has always had strong links with big business, but it was able, along with its allies on the left, to underline the lack of balance between progress and distributive justice at the macro level and the unchanged dreariness at the level of ordinary people. Is there something in this for us to ponder? The Congress victory is being depicted as a triumph of secular values over the revivalist zeal of the BJP and particularly the latter's co-habitants like the RSS and the Shiv Sena.

Fundamentalism has not been rooted out and may indeed become even more aggressive and spiteful in defeat. But will the Congress win encourage secular forces in Pakistan and South Asia? This can only remain a hope till we are able to achieve a truly democratic system with its ability to permit free interaction between different political strains and to peacefully absorb and accommodate clashing political beliefs.Nations learn from history, but they also learn from each other's experience.

We have so far shown no inclination to learn from history or from our own mistakes in the recent past. We seem extraordinarily determined to repeat our mistakes. But need one despair? Events have a habit of creating a momentum of their own, even more so in today's world. The outcome of the Indian election should at least be dispassionately studied by both our politicians and our policy-makers.

Judges' resignations

The resignation by over 100 judges and magistrates in Lahore over the "highhandedness" of some lawyers serves to underline the decline of institutions in Pakistan. There was a clash between the police and lawyers, in which the latter used brickbats, while the former fired tear gas to disperse them. According to reports, the clash came after the police pre-empted the lawyers' bid to storm the office of a district and sessions judge.

The lawyers, demanding his transfer for "misbehaviour", ransacked the office of the court clerk. Accusing the lawyers of the use of "criminal force in the court" the judges alleged that the lawyers had caused conditions to deteriorate to a point where normal judicial work had become impossible.

It is a measure of the relationship between the bench and the bar that a judge had an FIR registered against some lawyers, who tried to do the same but failed. That the two sides whose job it is to uphold the law failed to sort out their differences through dialogue is indeed depressing.

It would be unrealistic to expect that the bench and the bar would have remained unaffected by the erosion of standards suffered by constitutional and parliamentary institutions as well as the learned professions. But even in the most depressing circumstances, people look up to judges and lawyers to protect the public interest. To find the two at odds with each other can only further erode public morale.

The Lahore High Court chief justice is now trying to mediate, but a group of lawyers has expressed its lack of confidence in him. Given the high pitch at which emotions are running, it would be in the fitness of things if the chief justice of the Supreme Court intervened in the matter. The resignation by such a large number of judges is unprecedented in Pakistan's history.

It is, therefore, essential that the matter is sorted out at the earliest. As for the bickering witnessed, it only shows how far we have drifted from the norms of judicial ethics and how long it will take to persuade judges and lawyers to begin to respect each other.

Murder of a family

The multiple murder in Lahore of six people, including an infant and four others of a family, is a grim reminder once again of an alarming rise in hate-related crime in the country. The crime had all the characteristics of a sectarian assault. Lahore police, however, are not ruling out personal enmity as a motivating factor.

The way the victims were gagged and tied up before being shot in the heads from a close range speaks of intense enmity or hatred being the prime motive behind the dastardly act. How else does one explain the cold-blooded murder of an infant along with the other members of the family? What is alarming is that there have been far too many of such gruesome acts in the recent past - the attack on a Friday congregation in a Karachi mosque last week killing 19 people being one such instance.

It is stupefying how some people could be driven to such a pitch of hatred and frenzy so as to take fellow human beings' lives with such remorselessness.

While the recurrence of such acts of terror, enmity and hatred speak of the failure of law enforcement and intelligence agencies in crime control, it also points to inaction and apathy on the part of enlightened section of society vis-a-vis the rising tide of crime and violence.

Why is it that no religious or political party takes up the issue of bigotry and intolerance in our midst and exhort its cadres to work towards eradicating this menace? The so-called intelligentsia also seems to be in a state of hibernation. For its part, the government seems resigned to accepting hate crime as a fact of life by either denying that a faithful could commit such heinous acts or by promising exemplary punishment to the perpetrators who mostly remain uncaught.

The alarming frequency with which sectarian crime has been recurring calls for serious rethinking both at the administrative and socio-political levels. While the law enforcement and intelligence personnel must be required to do a better job of preventing and curbing this perverse crime, religious and political leaders and opinion-makers should also come forward to expose the dangers of growing intolerance and bigotry in society.